James Webb Space Telescope Program Director Greg Robinson discusses NASA’s largest and most powerful space science telescope ever constructed.
As the most complex telescope ever sent into space, the James Webb Space Telescope is a technological and engineering marvel. It will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, and everything in between. NASA plans to launch Webb in December to serve as the premier deep space observatory for the next decade. Webb is an international partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- The Webb telescope’s revolutionary technology to explore cosmic history and reveal new and unexpected discoveries
- International collaboration among NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies
- 29 days on the edge following liftoff
The Road to Launch and Beyond for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope
Leading Complex Projects (APPEL-vLCP)
Lifecycle, Processes & Systems Engineering (APPEL-vLPSE)
Gregory L. Robinson is the Director for the James Webb Space Telescope Program in the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD). He previously served as SMD’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs. Prior to joining SMD, Robinson served as Deputy Center Director at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as well as NASA’s Deputy Chief Engineer from 2005-2013. He also served as the acting National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service Deputy Assistant Administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where he led the acquisition and management of all NOAA satellite systems. Robinson holds bachelor’s degrees in math and electrical engineering from Virginia Union University and Howard University, respectively, and an MBA from Averett College. He also attended the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executive Fellows Program and the Federal Executive Institute’s Leadership for a Democratic Society.
Greg Robinson: It’s history-making for NASA and I’ll say for the world. Webb is going to produce science that we could only think about and rewrite the books.
In order to get the types of science we’re after, we have to be bold.
We’re flying at least 10 new technologies that have never been flown before.
Host: Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA’s largest and most powerful space science telescope ever constructed. And it’s scheduled to launch December 18.
Our conversation today is with James Webb Space Telescope Program Director Greg Robinson. Greg, thank you so much for joining us.
Robinson: Deana, certainly, thanks for having me. I look forward to this, getting more words out about James Webb.
Host: What excites you the most about the James Webb Space Telescope?
Robinson: So, a lot of things. First, just the scope of the mission. It’s the follow-on to Hubble. I often refer to it as science’s Apollo. It’s a very big mission. It’s the largest space science mission NASA has ever done and certainly the largest space science telescope that NASA has ever done. That gives me goosebumps. There are a lot of new technologies on here, but mostly, it’s going to unlock some secrets and mysteries of our universe that we can only imagine. So, we often say it’s going to rewrite the physics books and other books. So, I’m pretty excited. It’s been a really good team. Working with this international team of the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency and the NASA team, including the contractor and academia base has been tremendous. So, a lot of things really excite me about this.
Host: Could you bring us up to date on the latest activities with launch preparation?
Robinson: Of course. We shipped the observatory from Southern California on September 26 via boat, down the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal, down to South America and French Guiana. We arrived in Kourou in early October. We’re in the processing facility now at the European Spaceport in Kourou. We’ve completed all of our functional testing as part of the launch processing so in the next couple of days, we will start fueling the spacecraft. A lot of progress, and several days after we start fueling, we’ll complete that. We will move over to another facility where the rocket is located. We will hoist it up to the top of the rocket and mate it to the rocket, install the faring that closes it up. It protects it as we go uphill to space and a couple of days after we close that faring, we will move out to the launchpad, most likely December 16. And we will launch early morning, December 18. A lot of work behind us now. Not working any major technical issues so we’re looking forward to launching in about a month.
Host: And then the 29 days following liftoff have been described as an exciting but harrowing time. What’s happening during that time?
Robinson: So, the launch phase — we will launch on Ariane 5 rocket. That’s a contribution by the European Space Agency, a partner. 28, 29 minutes after that we will separate from the rocket. We will get communication from the observatory and shortly after that we will deploy the solar arrays so we can have power. We have to do a couple of midcourse correction burns in there to make sure we’re still on the right trajectory, heading out to Lagrange Point 2, a million miles from the Earth. Then, a lot of deployment starts to occur.
We have many other appendages that need to deploy, but the big ones are the five-layer, tennis-court- sized sun shield that keeps one side of the observatory extremely cold – the other side, nice and toasty. So, that sun shield is a new development. Never been flown before, never been developed before.
We’re looking forward to that. It’s definitely going to be nail-biting. And the deployment of the amazing, beautiful, I might say, telescope. That’s an 18 segmented mirror telescope. If you think back to Hubble, Hubble is 2.4 meters in size, which is quite large. Webb is 6 and a half meters in size, tremendously larger. So those are the two big ones. Again, there are many other deployments. So over that two to three weeks after launch, we’re expecting to have all of those things deployed. So that’s what happens in the 29 days, and then after that, we have about another month of activity to complete the commissioning so we can go into operations.
Host: What can the world look forward to once the telescope is in operation?
Robinson: Oh, my goodness. At the end of six months, we’re looking for what we call first light or first images. That’s what the world is looking for first — the amazing images that we haven’t seen before from Webb. I will add, that will be the first of many images during the course of Webb’s lifetime. Some of the things that Webb will do for us certainly will help us look back into the universe, looking at the formation of galaxies. So, we’re looking back 13 and a half or so billion years, three or 400 million years after the Big Bang. If you could imagine that, just looking back that far and seeing the formation of galaxies, it helps us understand the origin of the universe and our place in it. That’s a big deal. Of course, when Webb was developed, we had no idea about exoplanets. We knew what they were, but we really weren’t finding them and exploring them.
Now, there are thousands, thanks to some of the other missions, Spitzer and TESS and others that have come before, and TESS is still in operations. Webb will better characterize these exoplanets to see how habitable they are. So, we’re going to learn a lot from those types of planets.
And another area we don’t talk a lot about, Webb will also help us better understand within our own solar system. We’ll be able to better characterize the environments of other planets and other planetary bodies like Mars. Today we can look at those environments and see certain things from rovers and orbiters, but Webb will help us see the entire environment of some of these planets. And there are a lot of other things in there that I’m sure I’m not even aware of.
Host: And you talk about seeing more things in the environment. Does that actually contribute to Artemis?
Robinson: Most of our science missions, well, I would say many of our science missions have linkage to human spaceflight. So, as we go explore planets like Mars, we have Curiosity and Insight and Mars 2020 Perseverance on the surface and the twin rovers. We learn a lot about these planetary bodies. We fill what we call these knowledge gaps to help us understand what a human mission will take, and also a lot of the science and exploration we can gather from humans that we just can’t get from robotic missions. So, they help each other along the way and Webb certainly will help in some of those areas as well.
Science feeds human spaceflight, and certainly human spaceflight contributes largely to sciences. And certainly, the Artemis program will be doing a lot of science, particularly on the Moon, and that science is led out of the Science Mission Directorate.
Host: Greg, let’s talk about Webb technology. What makes this such a sophisticated telescope?
Robinson: It’s very sophisticated in a lot of ways. One is you mentioned the technologies. We’re flying at least 10 new technologies that have never been flown before and that’s really unprecedented. Flying two new ones is tough, even one sometimes, but 10 makes it really challenging. In order to get the types of science we’re after, we have to be bold. Some of these technologies are bold.
One I mentioned earlier, the sun shield technology. One, the membranes themselves. Each layer of the sun shield membrane is a new technology that’s never been flown before and then we have to take those membranes and put them into a tennis-court-size shield and do five of those and fold them up and then they have to deploy in space. That’s a huge technological feat and maybe even larger engineering feat. So that’s one thing that makes it extremely challenging.
Of course, some of the work we’ve done in the optics area feeds forward to eye surgery. Doctors are already using some of that, that technology to speed up the process of correcting eyes. That technology is new. The way we’ve built the mirrors and used the lightweight materials like Beryllium. The segmented mirror technology is certainly new. So, we have 18 segmented mirrors that make up the 6-and-a-half-meter telescope. Each one operates separately, but they all have to operate as one.
We have to fold that mirror up origami style to fit inside the launch vehicle faring and then we have to deploy that in space. So, those are two or three areas of technologies. I know I didn’t get down into the very details of the technology, but those are some of the areas that make it extremely challenging.
Host: So interesting. It’s going to be so exciting to watch when this is actually happening. What are some of the key questions about the universe that Webb may help answer?
Robinson: I mentioned some of those, so Hubble takes us back quite away towards the Big Bang, but certainly not all the way and the scientists often talk about comparing to a human. We see babies and then we see teenagers and adults, and we don’t see the period in between. Webb will help us understand that area and time in the universe of again, 13 and a half billion years back. Three, four, 500 million years after Big Bang. We know very, very little, really nothing of that time period of seeing galaxies form and new stars form, et cetera. That’s an area that’s still unknown to scientists so we will have a lot of knowns. And I mentioned exoplanets, we’ve learned a lot more about exoplanets. We’re discovering them now in the thousands, but we still don’t understand them really well — the habitability. And Webb won’t do everything there, but it’ll certainly give us more information than we’ve ever had before in those areas.
Host: When you reflect on the years of preparation for this mission, what comes to mind?
Robinson: I’m a baby when it comes to Webb. I’ve been on just under four years and many of the team members been on roughly 20 years so, I’m still a youngster. I mentioned earlier the very strong, dedicated team, really smart people, not just in NASA, but certainly our U.S. industrial base. Webb was developed across 29 different states in the U.S., 14 countries, including Europe and Canada. The team has been tremendous and working across the international lines. It’s been for the most part, pretty seamless, so a real good, strong partnership. So those are the things that really excite me about my time on Webb. It’s really leading this team. There’s a lot of professional and personal respect, top to bottom. I know it’s going to be a joyous occasion when we launch, but an even more joyous occasion after the deployment and after we get the first images.
Host: Are there knowledge nuggets that you’ve gleaned from the Webb experience that might be helpful to other NASA program directors and project managers?
Robinson: I have a good long list that I’ll mention, and some are technical, some are programmatic, and some are leadership. From a leadership standpoint, and again this applies across the board, I think transparency and early and often communications with leadership and stakeholders is just critical. I can’t stress it enough. It sounds kind of routine when I say that, even when I hear it, but you’d be surprised how much more we can be transparent. It helps take away mystery, particularly with our stakeholders.
Sometimes we’re going to have bad days. These missions are very difficult to develop and it’s better for people to know ahead of time. Even if the bad thing doesn’t happen, if they know that it could happen in six months, that’s just so important and also helps them understand the potential impact. That’s internal with our leadership and certainly external with our stakeholders. And I would say with our partners and our industry base, that transparency is important. The other part of that, it shows confidence. It shows that we don’t have to be insular to be successful and there are a half-dozen other things that it actually reflects. So, I think leadership transparency is just critical. That one area comes to mind right away.
Host: You’ve mentioned the international partnership. What are some of the highlights of working with international partners on Webb?
Robinson: I mentioned ESA and CSA. In NASA, we have at least over 700 international agreements. I think Science has more than half of those, probably two thirds of those. This is somewhat routine for us and particular with these two partners and both have major contributions, scientific instruments and I mentioned ESA with the Ariane 5 rocket. So, huge contributions. We have a really good science team across the world. We’ve been pretty tight knit on interfaces. Of course, interfaces can be tough with hardware. We have clean breaks, with instruments and spacecraft, and spacecraft and rocket. That makes it a little bit easier. But long before me, some really smart people and good leaders spent a lot of time building the partnership to make it pretty solid. So, when issues come about, and certainly since I’ve been on, all partners have been very open to discussion and mostly getting to resolution as quickly as possible and not worrying about where it started and who’s at fault. So, the partnership was built very strong many years ago, and I’ve actually benefited from it.
Host: Standing here on the edge of making history. What are your thoughts and expectations as the program director of this amazing mission?
Robinson: So certainly, it’s history-making for NASA and I’ll say for the world. Again, Webb is going to produce science that we can only think about and rewrite the books. So that’s a really big deal. I mentioned the team really excites me. I think if a team of this scale, you can get it working just right, it shows that you can get any team working just right. And lot of work went into that. So that’s a really big deal.
Of course, I look forward to the amazing science that we will benefit from for many years. I look forward to my three grandsons enjoying this launch. And certainly they will benefit from the science many years to come. And hopefully they will be part of the next explorers, whether it’s with robotic missions or with human spaceflight missions. So, all of those things excite me, the team, what we’re going to learn near term and the longer-term impact on society.
Host: Greg, it’s been wonderful getting to talk with you and appreciate you talking about Webb with us today.
Robinson: Are we done already? I could talk a few more hours. This was a real pleasure for me. I really appreciate, I appreciate you asking me to do this and let me know if, how I can help out going forward.
Host: Well, thank you so much. Are there any closing thoughts, anything that we didn’t cover that you might want to talk about now?
Robinson: One of the things I often talk about in this business, and you hear from others as well. So, I didn’t create this. As you look at the faces that develop and execute these missions, we certainly have to find ways to make those faces more diverse and not just the faces, the thought, the sounds, et cetera. And I think Webb is a good start to that, but there’s lot of work to be done.
Host: Greg’s bio and links to related resources are available on our website at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
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As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.